Grace Hartigan at the top of her craft Review: Once again, painter delights viewer with a change of pace.

December 09, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In her new show at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, painter Grace Hartigan remains true to herself, which means that she's not doing the same old thing. At 75, she's reinventing her art as energetically and imaginatively as ever.

Through a distinguished career that now spans half a century, one of the constants of Hartigan's work has been change. Even when her followers have wished she would linger longer with a particular subject matter or style -- as with her much-admired pointillist period of the late 1980s and early 1990s -- she has felt the need to move on. Here, she introduces not one but two new series, the "Stars" of American popular culture that she produced in 1996 and earlier this year, and the more recent "Gods" (Greek and Roman). Hartigan, who lives in Baltimore, thrives on creating new challenges for herself, and as a result, her work's freshness remains one of its enduring qualities.

Another is the richness of her imagery. Hartigan's basically an abstract expressionist, as her big canvases with their gestural brush strokes and active surfaces attest. But her works have freely used the figure as well and have incorporated elements of popular as well as high culture, world history and art history. She's a maximalist -- the opposite of a minimalist -- both in what the works show and in what they imply. The "Gods" section of the show, which one encounters first, quickly reveals a multiplicity of art-historical references.

"Venus Surprised," its visual field filled with ample bodies and centered on a chubby Cupid, immediately recalls Rubens. And the baroque period, of which Rubens was one of the foremost exponents, is everywhere in evidence in these images of classical mythology. Their dynamic movement, their ambiguities of space, their crowded surfaces are all characteristic of the period.

These works are not stuck in one period, however. They roam freely and swiftly backward and forward in time. The watercolors in particular, such as "Zeus" and "Athena & Centaur," include drawing that recalls both Picasso in its nervous line and Greek vase-painting in its lyricism.

One thinks of Hartigan's line, whether in oil or watercolor, as a relatively fat one. Here it's pared down to pencil thinness and takes on a greater elegance than ever before. This elegance is matched, in the watercolors, by restrained, subtle, even delicate colors.

Turning to the earlier "Stars," one seems at first to travel in more familiar territory. The subject matter lends itself to the broad gesture, the big faces, the bold, vibrant colors that one thinks of as quintessential Hartigan. But there's something new here, too.

Three of these paintings -- "Valentino," "Harlow" and "Marilyn" -- deal with stars who died very young: Rudolf Valentino at 31, Jean Harlow at 26 and Marilyn Monroe at 36. And into these creeps a melancholy that's also a change from the more optimistic spirit of most of Hartigan's work. The many images of Monroe that crowd "Marilyn" recall the multiplicity of Andy Warhol's representations of the same star, and also project a desperation behind the smiling facade. The black of death creeps across the "Harlow" canvas, threatening to engulf the face and its halo of platinum hair.

In terms of creativity, Hartigan's a lot younger than a lot of younger artists.

'Stars & Gods'

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Jan. 4

Call: 410-539-1080

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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